Taobao taboo


Last week, online purchasing platform Taobao announced it is enforcing a ban on the import of books and magazines published outside the mainland through its online platform.
Taobao claims it is following China’s rules on the restriction of print and audio-visual material that may be both ‘dangerous’ to social stability and ‘illegal’ according to national political standards. Some music groups from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, too, were subject to a ban earlier this year.
Prohibiting artistic expression and still allowing people to gamble in Macau is paradoxically consistent with Chinese governance. Although Communist China slayed traditional culture, popular Chinese television shows today harness the empire trope, while the government exalts the ancient crafts of a “glorious” civilization. Zhang Yimou, a Chinese movie director who has brilliantly put on screen the conflicting morals and modern class struggles of a revolutionary past, has captivated party rulers by pulling epic productions such as Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower. It can’t get more anti-establishment than that. And yet it is highly praised.
What is illegal in China’s panoptic vision, though not always forward, does not take a wild guess either. For one, sassy books on out-of-wed-lock adventures of Chinese politicians are very likely part of the forbidden book list. Moreover, it is no secret that the party’s subjectivities have somewhat leaned lately to anti-foreign feelings. What is clear, in any case, is that, as Chinese people become more educated, they read more. As this newspaper reported, retail sales of books in China increased 12.3 per cent year-on-year in 2016, while online sales grew 30 per cent in the same period.
Where does that leave the likes of Taobao? Access to foreign books may not change much. In fact, people seeking foreign published material would rather use other platforms, such as Amazon, to acquire them. But Taobao spreading its reach outside China, as happened when its parent company acquired the South China Morning Post (SCMP) last year, stirs other concerns.
In a piece published by The Guardian, also last year, former SCMP editors, both foreign and Chinese, claimed the newspaper’s editorial line has gradually changed since Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba – which includes Taobao in its huge business portfolio – took control of the daily. Accordingly, some of SCMP’s recent Twitter posts have emulated Xinhua, the Chinese news mouthpiece, by basically posting distracting content, not news. Although these do not make the publication a less respectable one, taboo is ingraining.